2017-08-26 / Columnists

A Look at History

Grand Hotel’s Honor Shows Heritage of Island Hotel Industry
BY FRANK STRAUS

This month, Grand Hotel was named America’s “Best Historic Hotel” by the newspaper USA Today. The honor was granted after a two-step process. A panel of senior USA Today staff and industry experts wrote out a 20- choice list. The list was printed out in the newspaper and on its webpage, and newspaper readers were then invited to cast ballots for their favorites. Other hotels throughout the United States also have near-legendary histories and heritages. Examples include the Broadmoor in Colorado, the Mohonk Mountain House in New York, and the Peabody Memphis in Tennessee. Grand Hotel vanquished them all.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself holding a Grand Hotel centennial menu card (1987) as a souvenir. The 100-year anniversary of the historic hotel is now 30 years in the past. For more than half the story of the United States as a country, Grand Hotel has welcomed visitors from its porch halfway up our Island’s historic bluffs. Yet even before 1887, the year Grand Hotel opened, Mackinac Island was welcoming visitors to rooms.

The first Mackinac Island hotel boom coincided with the invention of Great Lakes steamboats and the construction of great wharves in the Island’s harbor where they could transfer passengers. As long ago as the 1840s, thousands of westbound travelers, looking toward destinations in Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, found they had to change boats at Mackinac. In 1849, Edward Franks bought the unused Mission House, a former dormitory and private school structure on the east end of the harbor front, and repurposed it as a boarding house for steamboat transferees. The austere hotel was financially so successful that Franks was able to add a full third floor to the two-story structure.

Good news for Mackinac came in the 1850s with the discovery of growing veins of copper in northwestern Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Nearby iron mines were soon dug. The U.S. federal government paid a contractor to dig a small canal that bypassed the Sault Rapids. Specialty lake steamboats, built of a size to fit the first Soo Canal, began to shuttle back and forth. Their junction point for picking up passengers from the lower Great Lakes was often Mackinac Island. What is now the Stuart House, on Market Street, had already been refurbished as a boardinghouse. Responding to increasing standards of guest-space comfort, new owners tied the structure to what is now the Community Hall, with two long porches and elevated verandas, and renamed the historic buildings as the John Jacob Astor House Hotel.

More competition came in 1852, when Charles O’Malley built the first Island House near what is now the eastern half of Main Street. The Island House façade present-day visitors can see, between the hotel’s two wings, is a descendant of the original building, although the oldest section of the structure was dismantled, moved, rebuilt, and the overall hotel was expanded into a Victorian-style destination place during the second hotel boom that started in the 1880s.

Grand Hotel, first opened to the public in 1887, has also been expanded several times. It was, however, quite large from the start. The second hotel boom was marked by the expansion in 1881 of national railroad service to the Straits of Mackinac. Mackinac Island hotel patterns switched from being a place for steamboat passengers to transfer between boats to being a destination resort. In the 1880s and 1890s, guests often used the newfangled railroad lines for at least one of the legs of their travel to or from Mackinac Island. This made it possible to spend multiple days at an Island hotel. The Island souvenir trade, which blossomed during this period, shows that Mackinac Island had become a place that visitors wanted to remember after they left. Cabinet card photographs, postcards, booklets, birch-bark boxes decorated with porcupine quills, inscribed pieces of silver, even pieces of inscribed etched glassware, marked this period of Mackinac Island tourism and history.

Grand Hotel’s status among guests and admirers, as shown by tributes such as this month’s USA Today honor, partly stems from its ability to use its own properties – and the Island’s overall commitment to maintaining car-free roads and streets – to recreate a visitor’s sense of having traveled backward in time. The Victorian and Edwardian eras, when these “Second Hotel Boom” hotel spaces were enlarged or opened up, was the first period in U.S. national history when families of means could travel all over the United States in a relatively carefree manner. Other Mackinac Island hotels, such as the Chippewa Hotel and the Murray Hotel on Main Street and the Iroquois Hotel and the Windermere Hotel on the Island harbor’s western edge, also date back to this time.

The rooms built during the Second Hotel Boom were enough for Mackinac Island for many years. In the 20th century, the focus of many travelers in the eastern U.S. switched away from summer travel at places like northern Michigan to winter travel toward places like Florida and the South. The Great Depression made travel impossible for many Americans, and changes in the labor market created by World War II and its aftermath made it difficult to staff traditional hostelries in the manner to which guests had been accustomed. The steamboat passenger trade dwindled and disappeared. Mackinac Island became a predominantly day-trip place, as it still is today, with middle-class visitors mostly setting up living spaces on the Straits of Mackinac mainland and hopping over to the Island by day. During this century, several historic Island hospitality spaces, such as the Mission House, closed their doors forever.

In the 1970s, the Third Hotel Boom began. For many years, it was a challenged start, with a series of hardworking staffers and workers laboring hard to repurpose the former Mackinac College (1966-1972) as a summer resort. Gradually, this work produced the Mission Point Resort complex of today. Soaring 1970s divorce rates, and a desire by many Americans to get tied up in a manner signaling durability, began to create a growing number of destination weddings. While many American locations are seen as good places for a wedding, a honeymoon, or both, Mackinac’s Edwardian heritage has made the Island a preeminent location for romantic destination travel. While many new hospitality rooms were built or refurbished during this period, the place of Grand Hotel in this destination orientation was secure. The 1980 Grand Hotel movie “Somewhere in Time” had played a key role in creating this Third Hotel Boom image and imagery.

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